Of the hundreds and hundreds of movies about World War II, the new documentary “Filmmakers for the Prosecution” (“FFTP”) is among the very few to be set after the war ended.
Long before the Marshall Plan of 1948 was passed by Congress and the slow cleanup of ravaged Europe began, the international community began preparing for a tribunal prosecuting nearly two dozen former Nazi commanders and some of the civilians who aided financially and otherwise to the decimated Third Reich.
Yes, That John FordWisely anticipating that any evidence from U.S. sources would be rebuffed by the defense as biased, Jackson turned to Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative, director John Ford (yes, that John Ford) to field a team to assemble thousands of hours of confiscated Nazi films containing evidence of their extensive crimes against humanity.
In turn, Ford assigned this mammoth task to two underlings, brothers Stuart and Budd Schulberg, the sons of B.P. Schulberg, a movie industry pioneer and head of production at Paramount in the 1920s. After serving his country, Budd went on to pen novels (“The Harder They Fall,” “What Makes Sammy Run?”) and won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for “On the Waterfront.”
So sure and so confident that theirs was a righteous cause, the Nazis chronicled virtually every atrocity they committed for posterity’s sake and, yes, for Hitler and his inner circle’s after-dinner entertainment high in the Alps. Hint to future tyrants wishing to take over the world by committing mass genocide: Don’t make home movies of yourself and your cronies torturing and gassing civilians, and then burying them in mass graves.
Luckily for the prosecution, the trials were delayed until November, which allowed the Schulbergs and others to gather even more incriminating stock footage hidden all over hill and dale—including in (yes) haystacks and salt mines—as well as over 12,000 negatives from the files of Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann.
The VerdictsJackson and the Schulbergs caught an even bigger break when the high-profile German propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl saw the writing on the wall and decided to flip. Most noted for the 1935 feature “Triumph of the Will,” Riefenstahl’s choice saved her from prison time and possibly saved her life.
This insurmountable mountain of evidence led to convictions passed down by the judge’s panel resulting in 12 death sentences, seven prison terms, and three acquittals. Despite all of this, all but a couple of the defendants showed nothing resembling remorse or contrition. The notable exception was Rudolf Hess, who at the start the proceedings feigned amnesia, but after witnessing the two Schulberg-produced films in the courtroom (totaling 195 minutes), he confessed and threw himself on the mercy of the court.
Then Came the Cold WarThe original plan for the Schulberg documentary feature of the trials hit a metaphoric brick wall in the early 1950s when the vanquished enemy (Germany) became a U.S. ally and their World War II ally (the Soviet Union) transformed into the new enemy. Any and all historic or artistic interest in making the film public came to a screeching halt.
Clocking in at just under an hour, “FFTP” still manages to exceed the length of the Academy of the Motion Pictures Arts and Science’s definition of a feature film by 18 minutes, and by doing so, it provides a great lesson for all aspiring filmmakers. If you wish to make a great movie, edit yourself and include only what’s needed. Don’t consider the running time; consider the strength of the content. That is exactly what French director Jean-Christophe Klotz did here. “FFTP” is a fat-free production from start to finish.
The movie also points out the beyond-skewed perspective of the U.S. government at the time as it applied to art, truth, politics, international relations, and most importantly censorship. It eerily smacks of what’s taking place in our own country right now.